Rivermont Collegiate Commencement Address
June 3, 2018
First and foremost, I want to congratulate the class of 2018 on your graduation from Rivermont Collegiate. I know first-hand, through my service as member of the Board of Trustees, that you have worked very hard to get to this day. Rivermont graduates take a different, more challenging and more rigorous, path. You’ve been taught to work hard and challenge yourself—these skills which started at Rivermont will serve you well as you continue your education. Further, at Rivermont you’ve learned how to be curious. This might be the skill that will serve you best in the years to come.
So, while congratulations is in order today, I also want to remind you that today is not an end. You’ll need to continue to work hard, challenge yourself and be curious to thrive in the years to come.
Next, I want to recognize your parents and loved ones. In fact, I want to invite you to thank them right now for the support, guidance and love that they’ve given to you. Parents and loved ones of today’s graduates–please stand so your graduates can recognize you—you’ve been important partners in this journey at Rivermont Collegiate.
Finally, graduates, you would not be here without the challenge and support provided by the exceptional faculty and staff at Rivermont Collegiate. Their dedication to you, the personal attention they provided and the customized experience they’ve offered is second to none. Graduates and parents, please offer your thanks to the faculty and staff.
So before I begin in earnest, let me admit–in a moment of full transparency—that I feel slightly inadequate to be your graduation speaker today. When Mr. Roach called, I found myself thinking to myself, “I wonder how many people he contacted before he called me?”
I thought to myself that there must be many people who are far more qualified, talented and certainly more interesting than I am. While that is surely true, you’ve got me. So, let’s make the most of this today.
This brief talk has two parts: I want to tell you what a graduation talk is supposed to be about because I think that’s important for you to know, so you gain something from this talk; and, second, I am going to bold enough to offer you a little advice that I’ve offered many people with whom I’ve worked over my 26 years in higher education.
Before I get into the meat of my talk, I wanted to briefly address my gown, since some of you may have noticed that my gown is not as fancy as those worn by the Rivermont faculty and by you graduates. This gown is a cherished heirloom and is nearly one hundred years old. It’s a masters gown that my grandmother wore upon the conferring of her masters degree on June 8, 1927. In turn, my father wore it daily while attending seminary in the 1950s. The gown came my way when I completed my masters degree and I cherish it almost as much as I do the degree itself.
So, what is a commencement address supposed to be about? Any ideas? Honestly, I wasn’t sure either when I was asked to do this by Mr. Roach. So, I did what any liberal arts college graduate would do: I Googled it. Next, I asked trusted colleagues and got some great advice.
One of my colleagues offered the following:
“I’ve heard a graduation speech is supposed to talk about what happened in the world in the past 4 years, at the school in the most recent 4 years and then offer advice for the next 4 years.”
That’s seemed like good advice, but I thought that might be a bit depressing given the state of political and world affairs.
Another colleague recommended that I simply offer the following advice:
“Do good. Avoid evil. Pay cash.”
That’s good advice, too. But, does anyone actually use cash anymore?
Finally, a mentor offered the following advice:
Tell them to do the following:
Number 1: Work hard – there’s no substitute for hard work and it’s still respected. One can’t count on luck to achieve your goals.
Number 2: Have goals but don’t be obsessed with them. Maintain some flexibility and recognize things don’t always happen as planned. And that’s the fun in life.
Number 3: Don’t be a jerk. Treat everyone, regardless of their perceived station, exactly how you want to be treated. Self importance is not a handsome trait. Authenticity and genuineness are. To be authentic, one has to be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid of that.
Number 4: Be a lifelong learner. Once you stop learning – or think you’ve learned all there is to learn- that’s when you start getting old – regardless of your age.
Number 5: Money really doesn’t buy happiness. Do what makes you happy.
Number 6: Give back to those people or institutions that inspire you or have inspired you. You’ll feel good doing it.
Number 7: Stay connected to those you love – friends and family. Spread your own love among many.
I like and agree with these pieces of advice and I hope they will resonate with you.
Those are the things that others told me I should share with you.
After considering these words of wisdom, I felt better equipped to share my own recommendations, many of them based on my experiences mentoring new higher education professionals.
So, here are some thoughts from me to you as Rivermont graduates. I shared a number of these things in an article I wrote several years ago called “Take note and send notes.”
Ask questions—If you are seeking to do good and improve yourself, there is nothing more important than being curious. In an increasingly fast-paced world, it often seems easier to turn to search online for the answer to a question rather than to make time to ask someone in person. With email or texting taking the place of face-to-face communication in so many cases, asking a question has become a lost art. Learn to take time to formulate a good question and request the answer from someone you respect. It’s a great way to stand out. Moreover, asking questions can get you some valuable one-on-one time with the person who has the answers. If you really want to develop your skills as a professional, ask someone whose work you admire, “How did you earn the position you have today?” This single question will open a dialogue that will lead to more questions, and the answers will help you on your way. When I began in my career in admissions, I had an uncle who at the time had been working in college admissions and financial aid for more than 25 years. I asked him countless questions about his work and how his institution did things, and I listened intently as he shared his wisdom and told stories. His answers to my questions helped shape my path toward increasing responsibility. Asking questions also teaches you to be an active listener and as a result, a better communicator.
Take an interest beyond what might seem natural—Life is full of defined roles, which makes it challenging to stand out among others. Sometimes it seems awkward to become involved beyond the known parameters of your role, and you may get strange looks when you try to take an interest in areas outside your box. But, looking beyond what is expected of you is critical. Go above and beyond. Exploring related passions or extending your interests within the organization is worth it, even if that work is not directly related to your position. I’ve witnessed great employees become even better when they began taking classes, coaching, advising students, attending campus forums, and even sharing meals in other locations on campus. Get out of your box and see others and be seen.
Choose your mentors wisely and thank them often—I’ve never had only one mentor at any point in my life, and for that I am grateful. In fact, my list of mentors has grown and shrunk through the years as people I admire have moved in and out of the profession. My list is a support system. My mentors have most frequently been people with a different world view than the one I have, and with strengths in areas where I could improve. I frequently call upon these mentors for advice and am deeply grateful for all they’ve offered me through the years. It’s important to let people know that their insight is valued and appreciated. Take a moment right now to think about your mentors. Do you have a list in mind? Do you thank your mentors and let them know why you value their advice and good example? For each of the countless mentors who have influenced my professional growth, I make a point to reach out with a note to thank them at least once a year. I would encourage you to do the same.
Stretch beyond your comfort zone and say “yes” a lot—While doing something really well is laudable and true expertise is something to celebrate, those seeking to grow need to stretch. Many people are afraid of accepting new challenges because of the fear of failure or worrying about appearing to be inadequate to others. Consider taking a course or joining a club outside of your comfort zone. Befriend someone who is different than you. Doing things outside your comfort zone is proxy for confidence; and confidence is what sets the stars apart from the rest. For me, stretching beyond my comfort zone has varied over the years. In my first professional job as a college graduate, it started with volunteering to supervise a telecounseling program. I recall thinking, “I don’t know anything about this.” But I also knew someone had to do it, and even though it was uncomfortable, I knew I could learn something in the end. Even failing at the task would teach me what NOT to do the next time. I also knew accepting the challenge would impress my boss. Through the years I’ve said “yes” a lot and I have been willing to try something new, even if I wasn’t fully confident about my knowledge or experience. If you want to grow, learn more and develop more fully, be willing to say yes even when you’re thinking yikes.
Don’t forget about the basics—For me, the basics revolve around garbage. A great friend and mentor once told me that if you ever think you are too important to pick up the garbage on campus, then you are no longer qualified for admissions work. I am proud to walk the campus before admissions events, on the lookout for cans, McDonald’s wrappers, Starbucks’ cups and cigarette butts. This activity never gets old for me, and makes me remember it’s my job to make sure families see our campus at its best. I am quite sure the basics will mean something else to you, but as you think about advancing in your profession, do not forget that what keeps you grounded may quite literally be underfoot.
Finally, you might recall from the very gracious introduction that preceded my talk that I am a big fan of Lyle Lovett and the Grateful Dead (I see some of your parents nodding even if you graduates are unfamiliar with these groups). But, I want to leave your with two final pieces of advice that I think will take you far as you leave Rivermont for the world that awaits you.
Last summer I watched a Netflix documentary, “Long Strange Trip” about the Grateful Dead that was excellent. I learned a lot about a group that I’d seen live and listened to for nearly 30 years. But, something that stuck was a comment about listening. When interviewed about the band’s success and continued evolution—after all, the Dead toured for more than 30 years–The bass player, Phil Lesh, once said that the reason that the band was so successful, “was because we listened very hard to each other.”
To be the very best version of yourself, listen hard, to everyone and everything around you.
Another one of my favorite singer-songwriters and musicians is Lyle Lovett. His lyrics are clever, often very sharp and almost always illustrative. His song “Natural Forces” has left an impression on me since the very first time I heard it. But, one stanza in particular carries special meaning and, I think, gives you something, as graduates, to guide you forward.
LL, as I call him, sings this:
“Now as I sit here safe at home
With a cold Coors Lite and the TV one
All the sacrifice and the death and woe
Lord, I pray that I am worth fighting for”
Just as you need to listen hard to be the very best version of you that you can be, behave and aspire to be someone worth fighting for. This idea of “Lord, I pray that I’m worth fighting for” is the ultimate ambition for a life well-lived.
So, there it is, listen hard and life a live that will ensure that you are worth fighting for.
Congratulations Rivermont Class of 2018 and thank you for this opportunity.